Wolfbiter reviews IFComp 2023 (latest: finished with reviews, wrap-up thoughts)

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TLDR: Somewhat contrary to the synopsis, this game doesn’t play like an investigation. It plays as an unsettling, atmospheric coffee-shop simulator, where the player-character revisits their memories to try to understand how they might be tied to a series of recent crimes.

Gamemechanical notes: Choice based. Multiple endings based on player choices. Experiencing multiple endings seems to require starting at the beginning each time (there is an intermittent “save” option but it didn’t work for me).

What interested me the most about this game requires spoilers to explain, but here’s my attempt at some low-spoiler thoughts:

[ + ]

  • The art was cute and added to the experience, although less gritty and more of a webtoons style than the genre led me to expect.

  • This game is definitely trying something a bit more ambitious than I initially thought, and it spurred a lot of thinking! So much so that I felt called to write a bunch about the spoilers!

[ Δ ]

  • I found I had to go through multiple endings to understand what I think the author was trying to express. Given that, it would be nice if it were lower friction to try a different ending. I don’t love it when there’s one significant choice in a game, and it’s on the second to last screen, and you have to click through every other screen again if you want to try something different.

OK, the following discussion is really meant to be read after you have played the game. Really, this will spoil the entire game and I would not recommend reading it if you haven’t played.

To frame the discussion, here are the various endings:

Spoilers for all the endings

1. If the player accuses Marta, Aaron, or Quan (the regulars), the police will enthusiastically pursue whoever as a suspect. If you accuse Marta, she is additionally changed with “resisting arrest” (strongly implied to be a frame job). If you accuse Aaron, he is shot and killed by the police (also strongly implied to be unjustified). If you accuse Quan, he is taken to be interrogated without his wife despite saying he needs her to translate. The police don’t mention finding any specific evidence against any of them.

2. If the player accuses Casey, the police will look into her family (recall Casey is dead). They will find evidence related to the delivery driver killings, and also something about a cut brake line on the car Casey was driving. (I think Casey’s dad is the most implicated?) Jackie is shown to be happy about this outcome.

3. If the player accuses no one, the police officer leaves. The narration switches to refer to the woman sitting in the interview room as “Casey,” not “Jackie,” and states that she smiles and thinks to herself that she needs to be sure to wash the hair dye off of her hands. (Implication: Casey has orchestrated this whole chain of events, changed her appearance, and is now taking over Jackie’s life. Jackie is dead in the car crash under Casey’s identity.)

Hmmm, intriguing. So what do I make of all of this?

Spoiler-filled thoughts

I agree with some of the other reviews that there’s a mixture of good and bad things going on in terms of the writing in this game and that makes it harder to process.

On the “not so great from a writing perspective” side of the ledger, Casey’s identify-theft plan wouldn’t work–especially if she wants to take over Jackie’s family relationships?–which strains the player’s suspension of disbelief.

On the “mixed” side, the reveal makes a lot of the earlier details pay off (Casey saying she was unhappy / envied Jackie, the fact that Casey’s family owns the trucking company where the murdered drivers worked, the scratches on Casey, Casey saying “someone didn’t like the schedule I made for him”). This felt like a satisfying “oooh!” moment. However! It also sort of makes no sense, because we only heard these details because Casey told them to the cops. Why would Casey include anecdotes that make her look suspicious? Even if she’s ditching that identity getting investigated seems bad.

On the “good” side, the reveal also recontextualizes the whole barista-simulator bit. This is what finally made the game snap into place for me. I think the player is supposed to notice that the depictions of Marta, Aaron, and Quan are mildly offensive (the way that they can each get on Jackie’s bad side sort of follows racial stereotypes), which I did notice, but I was just confused why it was in the game. But what we see isn’t actually what happened! It’s just what Casey wants the cops to think happened! (Again, setting up decoys to get investigated seems overcomplicated, not to mention that Casey was apparently also framing her new identity, but set that aside.)

So, overall, I think one of the themes the game is trying to express is about how the justice system is too willing to scapegoat people of color. Ironically, I started with the ending where you find out about the impersonation, and while that’s tagged as the “main” ending and does contain important information, it left me really confused what was going on with the regulars in the story. And I think that it’s pretty easy to miss what’s trying to be expressed there if you don’t play multiple endings.

Finally, I’m not sure if this was intentional, but like @DeusIrae noted in his review, I also found it an intriguing move from a game design perspective. You’ve been inhabiting this character, but they’ve been lying to you the whole time about who they are! I didn’t reach any deep conclusions about that but I thought it was neat.